Ethical travel doesn’t have to be just about supporting the work of NGOs or charities through donations. It can also be about supporting local artists.
This is one of the reasons Japanese-American Lauren Iida founded Open Studio Cambodia. Iida, who has lived on and off in the Kingdom for the last 10 years, says her goal is to support local artists through profitable rather than charitable activities.
To create meaningful cross-cultural interactions, Iida organises art tours to showcase local talent.
There are three tours available – half-day tour in Siem Reap, private tours for longer stays, and a 14-day tour of the art scene in Phnom Penh, Battambang, and Siem Reap.
While charities and NGOs have a rather firm vision of the direction where they want to lead people, Iida aims to make room for the artists to express themselves however they want.
She gives these artists the tools and the space they need to create.
“I didn’t’ set out to start an organisation initially,” she says, explaining that it all began when she met a struggling artist in sleepy Kampot.
“It all started when I met Chan Phoun, who lived near me in Kampot. I saw he had a good deal of potential but could not sell his work.”
Iida remembers asking Phoun if he had ever framed any of his work, to which he replied with a rotund ‘no’, explaining that no one does that in Kampot and that he wouldn’t be able to afford it even if he wanted to.
“He said he never met anyone serious about buying art. I gave him a hand and we ended up selling his first piece of art very quickly and for quite a bit of money. He was very happy,” Iida says.
She says it was an “organic” and “spontaneous” start to the kind of work she would be doing in years to come. In July 2018, she set up Open Studio Cambodia in Kampot.
“I try to ask what Cambodian artists need, what they like to do, what is their vision for their artistic career. I try to provide them with the resources they need, including free materials,” Iida says.
“I also give them advice if they ask for it. I try to connect them with galleries and customers who might be interested in their work.”
The organisation had already attracted eight local artists before it relocated last year to a villa near the ancient temples of the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap province.
“Artists are so disconnected in Kampot and none of them has received formal visual arts education. A lot of them had never been to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh before they joined Open Studio Cambodia. Many of them didn’t even know what an art gallery was. They had no idea,” Iida says.
She says that almost all artists specialised in pictures of temples to decorate the home before joining Open Studio Cambodia.
“What the artists at Open Studio Cambodia saw before joining the organisation were religious painting in the walls of temples.
“Wealthy families would purchase a beautiful picture of Angkor Wat for the home, but there was not much variety,” she says.
Most of the artists at Open Studio Cambodia are making art about their life experiences and all of them are self-taught, Iida says. She also helps artists figure out their identity.
“Something that I have put a lot of thought into is the idea of what is Khmer. The artists are trying to redefine themselves as Cambodian contemporary artists.”
Iida, who has exhibited her layered hand-cut paper art around the world, tries to instil in them the belief that whatever they do is Cambodian, and that they should stand behind their artwork and feel proud of it.
“I want them to believe that whatever they do is Cambodian enough,” she says.
It’s important for the tourists to look for what makes an artist different and authentic, she says. This makes tourists feel like they’re exploring something new and unique.
“One of the most important parts of our tours is visiting our artists in the studio, but we also stop to meet people along the way in the streets.
“We meet food vendors, drivers, and other people that I have known for a long time – people who don’t even enjoy the financial security they need to become an artist even if they want to,” says Iida, who speaks fluent Khmer.
One of her artist friends is Chhoeun Channy from Battambang province. A visual arts graduate from Phare Ponleu Selpak, Channy joined Open Studio Cambodia hoping to get his work exhibited overseas.
“I want to share my personal experience in painting with fellow artists at Open Studio Cambodia because most of them have very different backgrounds. Many of us have never even been to art school. We are artists simply by virtue of our passion and talent,” Channy says.
Iida says art is a fantastic lens through which to get to know a culture or a person.
“Art is like a window into the brain and soul of a person. I think art tours are a really special way of connecting people. We’re watching artists at work. We are listening to them as they tell us why they choose to craft this particular piece,” she says.
Iida says the greatest joy of organising these tours is being able to connect people from vastly different cultures and backgrounds through a mutual interest in art.
“For many Americans on my tour, it’s their first time to Asia. They’re curious and nervous and excited about meeting people in a country that is very different from their own.
“To be the one that gets to facilitate that interaction between Americans and Cambodians on a human level through art, it’s simply my dream job,” Iida says.
Open Studio Cambodia is located at Group 4, Phum Salakanseng, Sangkat Svay Dangkum, Siem Reap province. For more information, visit their website: www.openstudiocambodia.com.